God is Greater
Our current sermon series, “God’s Great Announcement”, challenges us to think about how the God of the Bible is great. In the Old Testament there’s seems to be some sort of competition between the prophets of Baal and Yahweh over who is the greatest. A contest which the LORD wins hands down on Mt Carmel (e.g. 1 Ki 19). But when the triumphant Elijah flees the threatening Jezebel, we discern biblical greatness goes beyond brute strength.
Similarly, when the hysterical crowds in Ephesus cried out for hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28) the apostles spent no time in debate. Concerned that “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” (Acts 19:20), Paul continued his preoccupation in preaching the gospel.
Today, the ancient Islamic cry, Allahu Akbar, meaning “God is greater”, greater than any real or imagined entity, has become familiar to us through terrorism. Allah’s greatness however has nothing in common with the greatness of God upheld in the gospel. Human visions of greatness are all dreadful idolatries. We must go to the New Testament to be clear about the message of the Great God.
Paul speaks of “our great God and saviour Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13), where “Jesus” is a human name. The author of Hebrews pictures Jesus as a “great high priest” and “great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 4:14; 10:21; 13:20). The focus nowhere falls on acts of brute power. Peter, so familiar with the Lord, testifies, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). I think the prayer for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost sums it all up well, “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity…”.
The gospel is “God’s Great Announcement” because it pronounces a mercy that has no limit flowing from a compassion that is all embracing and delivering a forgiveness that is complete. Jesus Christ, particularly through his cross and resurrection, defines greatness as God sees it. As to human visions of “greatness”, they are gross idols, to be biblically literal, they are like “sheep faeces/gellulim” (Ezek 6:4-6) and “dung/skybala” (Phil 3:8) before the Lord. May our vision of God’s greatness be exclusively shaped by the name above every other name, Jesus (Phil 2:10).
What a Message
The great message God has given us to announce is expressed in a variety of terms. But behind the terms there is a common set of ideas. This is very important in our post-Christian culture where the words we use may have quite different meanings, or no meaning at all for our hearers.
What we need to be clear about are gospel ideas not necessarily gospel words. We may take a lesson from Paul who used remarkably different approaches in Pisidian Antioch and Athens (Acts 13 and 17). On the surface there appears to be no similarity at all. Yet both were effective proclamations of the gospel since both convey gospel ideas in terms appropriate to the audience.
We have also seen that the message has many facets, so we will be wary of thinking that the whole message can be neatly packaged. On the other hand there are a small number of pivotal ideas. So what are the main elements of the message?
Christians trust God to forgive their sins because of the death of Christ, and submit their life to Jesus as their Lord.
Obeying Jesus as Lord is not always clear cut. We are tempted to give our loyalty and allegiance to other powers as well as Jesus. It is common to discover that we have begun to serve two masters (Matt 6.24).
This temptation has greater power when we hold the idea that Jesus’ Lordship does not apply in every area of our life. That we can serve him, but our family, work, study, recreation are separate parts of our life. Having Jesus as Lord means bringing every part of our life under his authority. So we need to ask whether there are parts of our life over which we do not want Jesus to have authority, or over which he does not have authority. Is there anything that is not negotiable, that you cannot leave, give up or abandon? Are there any things that you will not do, places you will not go, ministries you will not undertake? Are there things you are doing now which he does not want you to do, or things he has told you to do which you will not do? He must be our Lord in practice, not just in name.
What is a Church?
Or is it a building, a religious organisation, a diocese, a parish, a meeting…? So many possibilities. So many different meanings.
What about St Mark’s church? Is it just a building? Or a parish? Is St Mark’s a church in another sense? And if so in what sense?
Our 39 Articles (see the back of the Prayer Book or this link) have a clear definition of church. Here is a modern English version of part of Article 19:
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful people, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered according to everything that Christ's ordinance requires…. Article 19
The Article does not refer to a church structure or organization. It follows the teaching of the New Testament and describes the church as a congregation. It is an assembly gathered together to hear the Word of God and to administer the sacraments.
The Article refers to the visible church. In the New Testament the term church usually means a local group of Christians in one place. The Article uses the term church in this sense. The other main use of the term church in the New Testament is in relation to the heavenly or eternal church. This is the church assembled around Jesus in heaven (see Heb 12.22-24; Eph 1.22; Col 1.18 etc).
The Article states that the things that define the visible church of Christ are that:
• it is a congregation, a fellowship which meets together;
• it is made up of people who faithfully follow Christ
• the pure Word of God is preached, not the Word of God mixed with other ideas
• the sacraments are rightly administered.
All of this focuses on the congregation. That is, the people as they gather. Church is not a concept. It is not an organisation. It is not an institution. It is a gathering, a meeting. So for a person to be part of the church they need to be in the meeting. They need to meet with the other parts of the body.
And when they do, a number of things should happen. The parts of the body will be built up by the Word of God. The parts of the body will be built together as they come together around the Lord’s Table to share by faith in the spiritual food that is the benefit of his death and resurrection – forgiveness, spiritual life, fellowship with the Father through the Spirit because of the Son. And as they meet in different ways they will build each other up in Christ.
Praying for Preachers – and others
One of the advantages of listening to sermons and talks online is that you can fast forward when the talk seems to get a bit boring. I must confess that there have been times when I wanted to speed up the speaker - ‘keep going, get to the point’. That mostly reveals my impatience rather than anything bad about the speaker.
Better than gripping our invisible remote control, is to pray for the preachers. And for the listeners. Who needs most prayer do you think? Until you decide make it 50-50.
But what to pray for? Preaching is different to lecturing or delivering a lesson. The preacher is expecting to bring a word from the Lord to the people. Not a word the preacher has thought up themselves, but one which expresses the revealed word of God, which expounds the truth of the scriptures.
Such preaching must be a work of God as much as a work of humans. This is because the subject is the Word of God. It is also because the Word of God is always a message from God. It is not a document in a museum meant only for the curious. God chooses to speak through people he has called and gifted to make his word known.
So what to pray? Here are some starter suggestions:
Pray that God the Holy Spirit will
Move the heart
Refresh the spirit
Inform the mind
Drive the will
These are good things to pray for the preacher.
They are good things to pray for the listeners.
Because we don’t want just to fill heads with information. The word of God is to instruct us in righteousness, to encourage us in discipleship, to grow us in holiness, to form Christ in us, to bring us to the likeness of the Father.
Such ministry will be seriously aided and abetted by people who pray like that. And by listeners who themselves are hungry to read and dig into the scriptures.
Who themselves are born again and filled with Spirit. Actually that is a good thing to pray as well because we always hope there will be people who listen to sermons who will be born again and filled with the Spirit as a result of hearing the Word of God.
What to do in 2020
There are many things we could do as Christians and a church in 2020. But the first question is not about doing but about being.
Who shall we be?
First of all disciples of the Lord Jesus. Children of our heavenly Father. Spirit-led lovers of God. To be a holy temple built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
To be that means a close association with Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the other children God is building us together with.
Being people of prayer who all the time are speaking to the Father with thanks, praise, requests (complaints even).
Being people of the Word who hear what the Spirit has said in the scriptures. Whose minds and hearts are full of it. Whose lives are being transformed by it. Who all the time are hearing what the Spirit is saying through the scriptures now.
Being people of the fellowship of God's Son who don't forsake the meeting together. Who encourage one another day by day, especially as the days seem hard and discouraging.
Being people of joy, who even though they are often sad and discouraged, know the presence of the faithful God who never forgets us and always keeps his word.
Being people of wonder and gratitude who always have on their lips the amazing message of salvation through the life death resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Being servant disciples who obey the Lord Jesus without dispute in the face of the demands and offers of many other powers.
Being people and a church like that will lead to action:
To spontaneous and planned telling of the great gospel.
To meeting together both on Sundays and in small groups. Multiplying small groups. Starting new groups.
To acting as agents of the compassionate God in various social contexts by word and deed to saltify the world with God's light.
Will you be in it?